Though it is true that the rail-trail movement in America
was born from a need to better utilize out-of-service rail corridors, much has
changed since the pioneering railbanking legislation was passed more than 25
The first rail-trails were recreational pathways through
largely wild and rural areas. But now, rail-trails have spread in both their
mileage and influence, to form bustling commuter routes in big cities, and
avenues to connect inner-city residents with open spaces, and each other. This evolution of rail-trails has paralleled the development
of a more dynamic understanding of urban growth, and a focus among planners in
recent years on density and connectivity as keys to building more sustainable
All of these themes came together last week in Washington,
D.C., for Rail~Volution 2011, a series
of workshops and symposiums on the role of transit, and transit-oriented
development, in shaping urban landscapes that are socially, environmentally and
economically more intuitive.
Though at first look it might not appear that Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) would be a natural partner to these
discussions, given that many of our projects rely on the abandonment of rail
service, in fact a growing focus of our work these days is on trails that run
parallel to, and complement, existing transit systems.
Rail-with-trail projects combine the benefits of
walking and biking pathways with convenient access to urban transit. With the
number of abandonments steadily decreasing since the mid-1990s, and cities
looking for creative transportation designs for booming populations,
rail-with-trail is often a cost-effective and efficient solution.
RTC's 2009 study of rails-with-trails in California found
that rail-with-trail mileage has increased fivefold in the past decade, up from
11.4 miles in 2000 to 60 miles by the end of 2009.
In the D.C. area, the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which runs
for eight miles next to Metro's Red Line, MARC commuter service and active CSX
freight and Amtrak lines, allows people to commute by bike or foot to the heart
of the nation's capital from Silver Spring and Takoma Park, among a number of burgeoning
Kelly Pack, RTC's director of trail development, is
involved with promoting use of the Met Branch Trail and led a workshop at this
year's Rail~Volution. She says that rail lines were built to provide a direct route
between important residential or commercial centers, and are therefore perfect
avenues for trails to follow.
"Cities these days are putting more effort into their
pedestrian and bike networks. But at the same time, urban space is getting
tight," Pack says. "Existing rail lines are natural corridors. More often than
not the right-of-way is wide enough to accommodate a trail, they are built at grade,
and they are already going where people want to go."
Pack says that a potential sticking point in building a
trail next to a rail line can be the railroad owners' liability concerns--if
anyone is injured or killed on the tracks, the owner can be sued. However, the evidence of rail-with-trail projects tells us
that building a dedicated biking and walking trail next to a rail line, with appropriate barrier and safety precautions, cuts the likelihood of such incidents to
"Reassuring rail operators that they are in fact reducing
their exposure is one of the main challenges for rail-with-trail proponents,"
Another is state legislation. Some states have updated
their State Recreation Use Statutes to explicitly include railroads. This measure provides another layer of liability protection to the railroads. In states such as Virginia and Maine, innovative legislation has extended the protection inherent
in recreational use statutes to the owners of railroads. In the same way that a
farmer is not liable if a mountain biker breaks her leg on a section of the
farm's right-of-way, so too are rail owners protected in case of accidents on a
rail-with-trail. The more legislation there is like this, the more railroad
companies and transit agencies will be open to trail proposals.
In California, there are at least five more rails-with-trails
in various stages of development, including major projects such as the Coastal
and Inland Rail Trails in San Diego County, the Coastal Rail Trail in Santa
Cruz County, and the SMART corridor in Sonoma and Marin counties.
These urban pathways will soon join the Met Branch Trail,
the Connecticut Riverwalk and Bikeway in Massachusetts, the Springwater
Corridor in Oregon, and dozens more rails-with-trails across the country, in
providing millions of Americans with convenient and safe access to an efficient
active transportation network.
Photo of the Metropolitan Branch Trail (top) by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Photo of the Martin Luther King Promenade in California courtesy of TrailLink.com.